It’s early November in the southeast corner of Arizona (60 miles east of Tucson as the crow flies), and I’m driving into the mouth of Sulphur Springs Valley, hugged by rugged mountaintops on three sides. As I turn into the monstrous cottonwood grove marking the headquarters of the Sierra Bonita Ranch, I catch sight of the 140-year-old adobe ranch home—the oldest in the state continuously occupied and operated by one family.
A scene from the film Tombstone (1993) recreates a visit to this same ranch by Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and his “immortals.” Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) lays suffering from tuberculosis in an interior bedroom as Earp departs, taking one last look at his best friend from the doorway leading out to a porch. The actual house, I now see, has no porch. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same spread where the historic Doc rolled out of bed in 1882, coughing, to saddle up and ride. The imposing Charlton Heston aptly plays ranch owner Henry Hooker, who came from a line of Englishmen known for their courage and fierce belief in liberty. According to one descendent, the first Hooker immigrated to Connecticut in 1633 and was said to have “carried a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other; preaching on Sundays and fighting Indians on weekdays.” That’s basically what it took to build up Arizona’s first
Henry Hooker (1828–1907) was well known for his hospitality, and today, I enjoy my own dose of “Hooker hospitality” when the man’s great-great-great- grandson, Jesse Hooker Davis, greets me with a handshake in the driveway. Like most cowboys, he dislikes the limelight. His private ranch is not open to the public, but he graciously agreed to my visit thanks to an introduction by his friend Scott Baxter. Davis and Baxter collaborated on Baxter’s book about old Arizona ranching families, 100 Years, 100 Ranchers (Prisma Graphic Corp., 2012), and Davis appreciated my interest in his ranch’s history and ongoing legacy.
Though he spent his youth visiting the ranch of his ancestors, Davis grew up in San Diego. Now 39 years old, the burly former running back for Cornell University moved back here permanently in 2003. He had been working in the hotel/restaurant industry and was looking forward to the day he’d own a string of bungalows on a Mexican beach, but a visit to his ailing grandmother, Jacqueline “Rinki” Hooker, changed everything. The ranch was ailing, too, since she was basically living in Tucson. The livestock had been in the care of a foreman for years, and the 4,000-plus-square-foot hacienda, corrals, bunkhouses, carriage house, and barns on the 160-acre original homestead had sat mostly unoccupied.
“She was just trying to hold onto the ranch,” says Davis, who was inspired to take charge. As soon as we step toward the house, I begin to understand how the Sierra Bonita survived the terror waged by Apaches—it’s literally a fortress. Davis’ tour of the hacienda ends with a visit to the high-ceilinged room where Doc Holliday once lay. The makers of Tombstone made replicas of the exact adobe brick walls, headboard, and dresser when they filmed on location near Tucson. I can almost see the real Doc languishing, pale and sweaty, in this very bed, as he did in real life and vividly on screen.
“Can you sense the spirits of all who have been here?” I whisper to Davis. “I think they watch over me,” he nods. “Or, at least I ask them to watch over me. Other people have sensed them, too, but they don’t like it quite as much as I do.”
Davis raises American Quarter horses on the 45,000-acre Sierra Bonita and has kept Henry Hooker’s original Hereford cattle, whose bloodlines date back a century. He runs a commercial cow-calf operation and works horseback with the help of three hired men. Davis’ cows begin calving in November, and each season’s rainfall and market fluctuations dictate how many, and when, he sells. “I’m the last of the Mohicans,” says the single Davis about losing his grandmother and father a few years ago.
“It’s my turn to take care of the ranch.” It’s been a steep learning curve, but nine years after settling in, he’s as much a part of the place as the once majestic adobe brick corral. The ranch has been listed as a national historic landmark since 1964, and isn’t going anywhere thanks to Davis, who hopes to pass on the legend of the Sierra Bonita to a seventh generation.